Want a Better User Experience for Mobile? Write this way

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Thanks to Mad Men, there’s a general cultural knowledge of what copywriting for an agency is (Staring wistfully out of a skyscraper window while wearing a suit, cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, right?), but what does copywriting mean at a Strategic Innovation firm such as BNOTIONS?

The main difference between Peggy Olsen and me is that I work for a company that builds products, not ad campaigns about products. I (literally) sit between the product and design teams to provide the voice of all the amazing stuff we build. Basically, it’s my job to write everything–excepting legalese–you read in an app.

Now, while you may not automatically assume that things like button text, menus, loading states, and error messages require that much thought, think about a time when you saw an uncontextualized “ERROR” pop-up or encountered confusing instructions in an app. Copy, in tandem with design, plays a huge role in how users perceive and use an app. It sets the tone of the experience, guides the user through that experience, and hopefully invites them to interact with it again and again.

Copywriting specifically for mobile is still an emerging line of work–just Google “app copywriting” for proof. Anecdotally speaking, much of the copy you see now is largely done by designers and engineers, but as companies continue to make the shift to building mobile products that can grow and be iterated upon rather than churning out one-off campaigns, you’ll definitely be seeing more of us around.

In the meantime, have a look at some of the things I think about when working on a project.

Remember the “sweet” in short and sweet

I’ve read plenty of mobile copywriting articles that champion making mobile copy as short as possible. While I don’t disagree with this, I do think that too much shortness can come off as, well, short to users.

It’s no secret that many of the daily experiences that once had to be transacted by a person can now be done with our smartphones. Still, just because the face to face interaction may be gone, doesn’t mean the need for human pleasantries flies out the window–so mind your manners. Simple things like greetings, thank yous, and non-robotic error messaging can make all the difference in the tone of your app.

Utility doesn’t have to mean boring

Most of the apps we use are utility-based: banking, weather, cooking, shopping, news, etc., but this doesn’t mean they need to be lifeless. There’s still room to add personality and kick to your apps without distracting from the job they need to do.

The PC Plus app, for example, has great thematic touch points. Loading screen: Rewards made fresh for you. Loading state: We’re preparing your offers. This charming copy is perfectly aligned to the utility of the app, without being distracting.

Say what you mean, mean what you say

Nothing will alienate users sooner than throwing a lot of confusing instructions or feature explanations in their faces. While that semi-transparent overlay with the marker instructions may seem like a good looking way to convey all the amazing things your app can do, it can intimidate or scare off your users. If the product has a logical and well-designed UX, your users should be able to navigate the bulk of the features themselves. If you must instruct, do so with a light hand. Take a page from mobile games–they often do a great job of explaining exactly what you need to do and then getting out of the way. These Dumb Ways to Die screenshots offer a case in point.

Copy cannot fix a fundamental flaw in the UX or design

Have a vaguely confusing feature in your app? Thinking to yourself, “We can address that with copy”? Think twice. No matter how great the feature is, if it can’t be intuited or very very simply explained, it’s going to fall flat. As the guys over at RealMac state, copywriting is design. A useful analogy is the instructions that accompany exercises in fitness magazines–once you’ve put your feet shoulder-width apart, leaned to the left, raised a fist to your ear, and jumped diagonally to the right, you probably have no idea how to replicate the movement again–completely negating any benefit you might get from it to begin with. Similarly, users won’t be able to get any value or utility from your product if it’s hard to use or hard to explain how to use.


Sadly, there aren’t a lot of resources for mobile product copywriting yet. I’ll be looking forward to Content Snippets expanding their library. UX and mobile design sites are often a good resource, too (UX Archive and Pttrns off the top of my head). But why wait? If you’re a copywriter for mobile–by trade or necessity–let’s talk. I’d love to hear about your tips, tricks, and conundrums in the comments below!

Also, if you’re a UX copywriter in the GTA, join the new Meetup, ScribbleTO, here!

Image credit: http://cdn.instantshift.com/media/uploads/2011/02/wicahiiifad.jpg